US rights group grades Cambodian American activist’s trial as an ‘F’

Supporters of democracy advocate Theary Seng continue to push for her release.
By RFA Khmer
2022.09.19
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US rights group grades Cambodian American activist’s trial as an ‘F’ Cambodian activist Sat Pha [left] raises the hand of fellow activist Theary Seng [center] outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Dec. 7, 2021.
Photo courtesy of Theary Seng

Supporters of jailed Cambodian American and human rights advocate Theary Seng called on Cambodia’s government to grant her release, days after a New York-based rights group called her June 14 trial “a travesty of justice.”

Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison along with 50 other activists for their association with the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, once the main opposition in the country before the Supreme Court dissolved it in 2017.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice, which was founded by actor George Clooney and his wife and human rights attorney Amal Clooney, gave the trial a grade of F because it ignored Cambodia’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it signed in 1980 and ratified in 1992.

The foundation urged the appellate court to overturn Theary Seng’s conviction and order her release.  

“This case was all but predetermined,” said Andrew Khoo, co-chair of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee, who reviewed the case for the foundation.

“Theary Seng was convicted not because of what she did, but because she supported democratic change in Cambodia.  Her continued incarceration constitutes arbitrary detention under the ICCPR, which prohibits imprisoning someone for exercising their right to freedom of expression.”

Theary Seng, who is known for donning elaborate costumes in her public protests, appeared in front of the courthouse on the day the trial ended dressed as the Statue of Liberty, awaiting the verdict. After the court found her and the others guilty, she was quickly taken into custody and sent to prison.

Other activists are also pushing for her release. Sat Pha, who once stood shoulder to shoulder with Theary Seng at protests before she fled to Thailand for fear of political persecution, told RFA’s Khmer Service Sunday that she and other exiles planned to wear t-shirts demanding her fellow activist be freed this weekend in Bangkok on the occasion of Pchum Ben, the Cambodian festival for remembering ancestors.

“Even though I am in another country right now. I strongly demand that the government release Theary Seng from prison without condition,” Sat Pha said.

Others inside Cambodia marched and sent petitions to foreign embassies from democratic countries, said Prum Chantha, a protester from the Friday Women Group, which held weekly protests at the court during the trial in support of their husbands, who were eventually convicted alongside Theary Seng.

“I appeal to the government to release Theary Seng and our husbands because they haven’t committed any wrongdoing. [They should] and drop all the charges,” Prum Chantha said.

Sokun Tola, a member of the Khmer Thavarak youth organization, told RFA that she believes Theary Seng is a good role model for the younger generation thanks to her advocacy work to end injustice and bring about freedom for the Cambodian people.

“I think the government should consider releasing Seng Theary [and the rest] during the Pchum Ben festival so that they can join the festival,” Sokun Tola said.   

Theary Seng has been treated according to the law, government spokesperson Phai Siphan told RFA Monday. 

“The government authorities have no jurisdiction over the court nor can we interfere or order the court to end this case. We have no authority over the court,” he said.

The government frequently makes that excuse, however, Am Sam Ath of the  Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights told RFA.

“They always say that the arrest and imprisonment of political activists is done according to the law,” he said. “But, human rights experts, the U.N. Council for Human Rights and democratic countries see that the arrests and imprisonments of former political activists and Seng Theary are politically motivated, rather than a proper application of the law.” 

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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